The End of Deseg As We Know It

City schools face an uncertain future -- a crucial court settlement, a Feb. 2 sales-tax vote, a teachers' union opposed to the tax, accreditation tests this spring and the prospect of a state takeover. It could be a school year from hell.

Incongruous as it seems, the fate of 44,031 city schoolchildren -- 85 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- has been Topic A for the past week at the elite law offices of Bryan, Cave in the Metropolitan Square Building downtown.

Also in the mix of the school-desegregation settlement talks is the fate of: the 12,853 African-American students from the city who voluntarily head each morning to schools in the suburbs; the popular and successful "magnet" schools in the city, which attract about 1,300 white suburban students; the $146 million in state funds that help pay for the city-county deseg program; and, last but not least, the financial health of the St. Louis city school district.

The out-of-court settlement talks in the 27-year-old lawsuit are just the first event of what promises to be a year from hell -- or possibly heaven -- for city schools.

Coming on the heels of the past week's negotiations is the Feb. 2 sales-tax ballot proposal, which city voters must approve for any settlement agreement to be enacted. Then the city schools will be assessed by the state in March to determine whether the district's accreditation should be renewed. If the district flunks the accreditation, the state gets to appoint a CEO to run the district, in accordance with landmark legislation (Senate Bill 781) passed last year by the Missouri Legislature.

In addition to the legal machinations and ballot-box possibilities, another classroom nightmare looms in the fall. About 900 of the city's 3,200 teachers are eligible to retire this year, and this is the first time prospective retirees have an added incentive. In previous years they would have received 37.5 percent of their average salary from their highest three wage-earning years; now they will receive 60 percent.

Last year about 200 teachers retired; this year the figure is expected to be higher. This in a district that started this school year with 270 teacher vacancies and routinely uses substitute teachers to handle classrooms on a long-term basis.

So the sales tax is but the first hurdle in a tricky and unavoidable obstacle course the city schools face this year, a year that has been a long time coming.

The suit, originally filed in 1972, evolved in 1983 into a school-choice program that allowed city African-American students to attend suburban schools. In 1996, a hearing triggered by the state led to the appointment of William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University, as settlement coordinator. Since then, Danforth has played Monty Hall in this Let's Make a Deal spinoff. Clearly Danforth thinks what is visible is a better alternative than what's hidden behind Curtain No. 2 -- which is how U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh or his successor would end the case if the sales tax fails and the suit returns to the judge.

Passing the two-thirds-cent sales tax would raise about $20 million a year in local revenues, triggering an estimated 2-to-1 match of state funds for a total, it is hoped, upward of $60 million in funds going to city schools. That amount would replace the current $70 million per year the city district gets in state funds for the court-sanctioned school-desegregation plan.

For city voters, the sales-tax measure presents a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't proposition. If voters approve the sales-tax increase, they end up getting less money from the state to help schools that they know already are in trouble. If they reject it, the wheels fall off the settlement and the fate of the city schools is in the hands of a federal judge.

Compounding the city schools' problems is the fact that the St. Louis Teachers Union is against the tax proposal for city schools. The union's 13-member executive board has voted unanimously not to endorse the sales-tax increase.

For union president Sheryl Davenport, it was a tough but clear call. Whatever is included in the settlement, the funding scheme will end up giving less money to a school district that she sees as historically stingy with its teachers. Of the 104 school districts in the region, the average salary of the city's teachers -- $33,269 a year -- ranked 73rd, according to a recent survey.

"So if you're talking about quality education and being able to provide services for students, increase student achievement, decrease the dropout rate, how do you do that with minimum pay to employees?" Davenport asks.

"We can't get substitute teachers now. We have teacher assistants subbing in classrooms because the district can't even pay their substitute a comparable rate with the surrounding school districts. So oftentimes if a certified person is absent, they're putting a teacher assistant in that classroom."

Davenport feels she has to take a tough stance for her rank and file, because the settlement talks did not include teachers and, for all she knows, did not consider their interests. With no collective-bargaining capability, she wants some assurance that city teachers "don't end up on the short end. We already know that the pie has been divided. So where are the people, the teachers, who implement this? Where's our piece?"

If Davenport and her union members sound unduly venal, don't be fooled. Money mattered to every party in the settlement talks -- how much, where it came from and who got it. This year, the state paid out about $146 million, with just half going to the city, the rest going to county districts and for transportation. That the head of the 3,200-member teachers' union is concerned enough to oppose the proposal that most see as the city district's best chance for navigating out of troubled waters is evidence of the seriousness of the situation, not blind self-interest.

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